Frank Bruni has a big problem with me. But we’ll get back to that. Let’s start with the anxiety around college admissions. What’s it all about? Why is it so much worse now than it used to be?
One reason is the mythology around “brand name” schools, the idea that entrance to a highly selective and well-known college validates a student’s worth and will automatically set them on a path to success. Additionally, the rise of college rankings has created a cycle in which schools that already have 10 times the number of applicants they can accept go to great lengths to recruit even more applicants, thereby driving down their acceptance rate while simultaneously driving up their ranking. And then there is the special consideration afforded to athletes, legacy students, current/potential donors, children of the famous and those of faculty, all of whom, in addition to an increasing pool of international students, decreases other applicants’ chances.
Not to mention all the trouble I personally am causing. Like I said, Frank Bruni has a big problem with me. According to Frank, I am part of the nefarious cabal known as Private Consultants who strip unwitting families of their last dollars while “prepping and packaging students … festooning them with all the right ribbons and all the prettiest bows.” There is oh so much I could say in response to this depiction, but before I get too snarky or defensive, let me explain why I became a college essay coach and why I think helping students with their college essays is not in fact the problem, but rather part of the solution.
A while back, I started volunteering as a writer coach in the Berkeley schools, where I worked (and still do) one-on-one with the same students all year as they navigated their various English assignments. I found that the relationships I developed with the students were surprisingly meaningful and in particular, I enjoyed the assignments that required the students to write about themselves. From my own experiences, I knew how empowering it was to write one’s own story and I loved being able to share that excitement by encouraging kids to tell their individual stories as only they could. It made me want to do more encouraging, more coaching. And what bigger milestone is there in a young person’s life than the transition from high school to college?
As one of the experts in Bruni’s book puts it, “[College is] supposed to put you in touch with yourself, so that you know more about your strengths, weaknesses and values and can use that information as your mooring and compass in a tumultuous, unpredictable world.” When I read those words, they spoke to me because, on a smaller scale, writing one’s college essays (and really the whole college application process) should entail the same goals.
Despite Frank’s one-dimensional generalizations about private college counselors, I’m going to let him off the hook because he has an important point to make, one that I wish more people would take to heart. What one does is a lot more important than where one does it. Checking off boxes and accumulating status symbols only gets you so far. But to be an engaged, aware and actualized human being will allow you to soar no matter where you launch.
Thank you to Mary Boyer, patron of the arts and many a liberal arts college, for sending this one my way.